The journey from Puerto Iguazu to Buenos Aires was a bit of a nightmare. We knew it would be a monstrous 20 hour bus ride, and in preparation we booked a fancier ‘cama’ class, which means the seats recline a lot more and are bigger, a bit like business class on a plane. We had card games (most notably Creatures of the Deep Top Trumps) and books to keep us entertained so we were all set. The first part was fine, we departed on time and we spent an afternoon and evening chilling on the bus. We had to stop a few times for the military police to get on our bus with their guns to check people’s nationalities (as Brits they just nodded and walked away, but a poor Mexican bloke a few rows behind got interrogated a bit), and the bus wasn’t particularly fast, but we weren’t concerned. At 4am, once we’d been asleep for a good few hours, the bus broke down and the driver woke us up to tell us we had to change buses, we were sleepy and baffled and hoped that the new bus we were getting on was still heading for Buenos Aires. We ended up arriving 4 hours late, but very relieved we made it. Then the metro wasn’t working and we had to manoeuvre the frantic bus system from outside the big bus terminal, and we realised we couldn’t actually board a bus without their equivalent of an Oyster card. We finally found where to get one from (which you have to register with your official documentation and passport, weirdly) and managed to get the bus to our nice apartment in San Telmo, the slightly run-down home of tango.
After all the kerfuffle we were exhausted and a bit disheartened, but nothing a good sleep didn’t fix. We woke up the next day ready to explore the city and all its wonders. We were there for a week and did a fair bit, so I’ll break it down into the best things we got up to and what I’d recommend to anyone going to the city for the fist time.
Central Buenos Aires – Casa Rosada, Obelisco and Av. 9 de Julio
On our first day we decided to just have a bit of a wander and get a feel for the place. We walked from our apartment in shabby, but trendy San Telmo, to the Casa Rosada (the executive office of the President – just think of the scene in Evita where Madonna sings ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’). It’s an impressive pink mansion in a pretty palm tree lined square. We then walked from there down 9 de Julio, reportedly the widest street in the world – a ridiculous 22 lanes – which takes forever to get across! We went for lunch in a cafe on the massive street, which wasn’t too cheap but was a great place to people watch, and was close to the Obelisco monument, which sits in the middle of the road. I suppose this is the equivalent of walking past Downing Street and having a wander through Trafalgar Square and down the Strand or Charring Cross road. It’s a short, touristy wander past several main landmarks. I always like walking around a big city when you’re not in a rush (and other people are).
El Ateneo Gran Splendid Bookshop
Under the recommendations of Toby’s sister, we visited El Ateneo bookshop, situated on one of Buenos Aires’ main shopping streets, Av. Santa Fe. It’s one of Buenos Aires most famous shops and was voted by the Guardian as the world’s second most beautiful bookshop (not sure what was top, but it must’ve been pretty impressive). It used to be the Teatro Gran Splendid, and retains the same architectural style of a theatre to this day. It’s got a beautifully painted domed ceiling, golden balconies, and a little cafe on the stage, where the crimson velvet curtains remain. Customers can dip into books before purchasing in the still intact theatre boxes, which I think is pretty cool.
Cemeterio de la Recoletta
My favourite thing we did in Buenos Aires, and also the strangest, was visit the cemetery in Recoletta, an up-market barrio in the north of Buenos Aires centre. It is truly strange, a huge cemetery dedicated to the elite of Buenos Aires’ with streets and streets of tombs the size of houses. The Lonely Planet guide we have describes it as a ‘necropolis’ which is a really eerie, but really accurate description; it is a mini-city of the dead. The marbled facades of the tombs are works of art in themselves, and ornate windows allow you to look into many of the tombs to the elaborate coffins inside. You soon become accustomed to being surrounded by dead people, which isn’t as creepy as you’d expect, and you can wander around and truly wonder at the artistry and opulence of Argentinas finest (including Evita herself, who has a surprisingly humble tomb in comparison to most). Well worth a visit, and to top it off it’s completely free (and full of cats, if you like cats).
On another day we crossed the docks to the sky scraper packed island of Puerto Madero. It’s surprisingly close to downtown and the rougher barrios of San Telmo and La Boca, but is the banking and corporate centre of the city. With buildings as shiny (or shinier) than Canary Wharf, this is a fancy bit of the city. When the sun sets the buildings shine so bright you can see them from Uruguay (not joking, we were in Colonia del Sacramento and we could see the sky scrapers like tiny mirrors on the horizon). On this island is also the Reserva Ecologica Constanera Sur, a popular destination for nature walkers, joggers and anyone who fancies a rare bit of peace and quiet. It’s a strange juxtaposition between the modern glass fronted buildings and the wild nature reserve, but one we really liked. In the summer you can rent bikes and cycle around the park, but unfortunately not in the winter, so we walked around it instead and sat on a bench on the small stony beach, situated on the far side of the park. It was a nice place for a wander and I can imagine it would be even better in the spring or summer.
We were staying in San Telmo, so wandered around the bustling streets quite a bit here. It’s close to the centre and was traditionally the home of artists, musicians and dancers, so was the trendy place to be. But from the late nineteenth century onwards, the rich moved towards the north of the city and San Telmo became more affordable and subsequently rundown. It’s said to be a rougher part of the city, but we found it to be friendly, lively and a good place for beers and antiques. San Telmo’s Sunday antiques fair is famous, and lines several blocks with stalls and little shops filled with all sorts of knicknacks. The Sunday we visited was extremely rainy, so unfortunately a lot of the stalls were closed, but there were still some troopers that had opened up for the many people who had come to have a look. The antique shops and closed markets are open come rain or shine and they’re excellent in themselves, filled with an eclectic mix of clothing, chandeliers, jewellery, taxidermy and much more.
We were also lucky enough to be in South America for the Copa America, which has just finished, so we watched the Argentina v. Colombia quarter final in an excellent bar just two minutes from our apartment. La Puerta Roja is an upstairs bar which would go completely unnoticed from street level. It has no sign, but has a buzzer to get up and, aptly, a big red door. The atmosphere was excellent, we arrived and it was completely packed with rowdy and excited Argentinians. The drinks were fairly cheap (for Buenos Aires anyway) and the many happy hours ran until 11pm. Fortunately, Argentina won, after a tense game which ended in penalties, so the atmosphere remained cheerful all night.
Museo de Arte Latinamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba)
It was nice to finally visit a gallery of Latin American art. A lot of the cities we’ve visited so far have galleries containing mostly European art, so it was great to find one that was proudly Latin American, and different from what we have at home. Situated in hip and beautiful Palermo, the ultra modern, glass panelled museum has a relatively small permanent collection, but it’s curated in a way that’s simple and accessible (explanations are frequently in English as well as Spanish), with a mixture of photography, painting, sculpture and film. I would highly recommend spending a couple of hours here, and it also has a nice bookshop and cafe inside.
There’s so much more we would like to do in Buenos Aires and we feel like we’ve only skimmed the surface of this superbly sexy city. We’ll be heading back there once we’ve spent some time in Uruguay (it’s very convenient to get the ferry from Bueno Aires to both Colonia deal Sacramento and the capital, Montevideo). Hopefully we’ll be able to tick off the rest of our Buenos Aires bucket list.